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Among foods, beef is frequently noted as one of the biggest causes of global warming, particularly because cattle produce methane as part of their digestion. Cheese is less frequently discussed in this manner, despite also being produced from cows, presumably with the production of methane at similar amounts.

From the Wikipedia article on feed conversion ratio (FCR) it would appear that dairy cattle and beef cattle have about the same requirements for principal inputs. Is is possible to determine the relative or absolute impacts of these 2 foodstuffs?

  • 1
    Just cheese, or all dairy? – Maria Aug 23 '19 at 1:13
  • 3
    1. What is FCR? 2. Please do not start an answering in the question; leave that to the answers – Jan Doggen Aug 23 '19 at 7:30
  • @Jan Doggen I have put in the definition of FCR. Do you think I should remove the paragraph "I can see 2 interpretations of this..."? I thought it clarified my thinking, but I shall remove it if that fits better. – Dave Aug 23 '19 at 8:24
  • @Maria I concentrated on cheese as it is most similar nutritionally to beef, I would expect the calculation to be similar for all dairy. – Dave Aug 23 '19 at 8:25
  • @Dave do you think sheep or goat's cheese is better? – atreeon Nov 19 '19 at 5:27
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The simplest answer I could find comes from this 2019 New York Times interactive about food and climate change. Based on a serving with 50 grams of protein, the average greenhouse gas impact of beef is 17.7 kg CO2 and the average impact of cheese is 5.4 kg CO2. So to conclude: beef is worse than cheese for global warming. But be careful to note their caveats:

Now, these are only averages. Beef raised in the United States generally produces fewer emissions than beef raised in Brazil or Argentina. Certain cheeses can have a larger greenhouse gas impact than a lamb chop. And some experts think these numbers may actually underestimate the impact of deforestation associated with farming and ranching.

Because this is a complex subject, I'll elaborate below on some of the nuances that can go into a question like this.


Comparing foodstuffs

Setting up comparisons of food is quite a bit more complicated than say, comparing different means of producing electricity. An economist would say that different foods are not fungible -- the units are not interchangeable, and there are many ways in which one may be distinguished from another.

When foods are being compared in the context of environmental impact, the simplest comparison is based on unit of food energy (kcal or joule), but this comparison may produce unwanted results because of cheap "empty calories" are usually not promoting human health. Comparing foods based on protein mass is also popular, partly because protein tends to be the rare/limiting factor in food production. Both of these comparisons ignore vitamin and mineral composition in favour of a simpler comparison.

Which environmental impact?

When trying to assess environmental impact more carefully, we need to specify what kind of impact we're trying to measure. For example we might be interested in ocean acidification, greenhouse gas emissions, eutrophication, ecotoxicity, non-GHG air pollution, or other measures.

Because your question seems to focus on methane, this answer will focus on global warming potential.

Land damage and opportunity cost

However, focusing on global warming adds another aspect of complexity! It's true that cattle produce methane in their gut and much of that escapes into the atmosphere and directly contributes to global warming. But the direct effect of methane production might actually be dwarfed by land use and land use change (LULUCF)!

  • If forests are cleared to make new grazing land for cattle or grow feed for intensively-raised cattle, that land will release carbon as the trees biodegrade. The soil may also release carbon, depending on how the land is treated.
  • If afforestation is desired but the project cannot proceed because the land is occupied by grazing cattle, the presence of cattle on the land come with an opportunity cost.

System thinking

Beef and dairy for human consumption are the principal outputs of cattle operations, but they are not the only outputs. Their hides may also be used to craft leather, and their labour may be used to work the land (though this is less common in the North American system of intensive cattle farming). If these other outputs have non-zero value, that should affect how we apportion the environmental impact of raising cattle.

A cattle dairy is always necessarily involved in the production of beef (young male calves and old female cows) but beef production does not necessarily involve dairy as a coproduct. These systems are separable, although it may be challenging.

  • This is a good answer. The fundamental difference is that a dairy cow can keep on producing milk, while the beef cow is, of course, finished when you eat it. The details can be complicated, but eating dairy food clearly requires less resources and produces less emissions in general. – user3540774 Dec 30 '19 at 22:28
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Your numbers seem sound and well thought out, and they help demonstrate how simple personal choices in diet can make a huge difference in our individual impact on the environment. I would argue that the term "bad for the environment" describes a very different question that seldom seems to be as well thought out as the numbers.

Imagine what would happen to our personal choices if we could only choose from options that were good for the environment, either in the limited scope of your calculations, or in a more comprehensive evaluation of the true global impacts. Could meat and cheese still be something we consume?

To answer this, we have to look at how animals (including humans) can be beneficial in a way that reverses the impact. In other words, we could turn the problem into a solution.

Dairy cows would still produce calves, most of which would be eaten at a tender age (pun not intended) and a lot of methane would be collected as fuel. Feedlots and grain production would be profoundly altered if they would continue to exist at all. You would pet the cow and the calf far more frequently than you currently stroke your meat (pun not intended) and these creatures would be local enough to be consdered your close neighbors.

These animals would graze more than they do now. They would trim your hedge and cut your grass. They would be workers in the sense that they do something you want instead of doing something that destroys you. Our consumption of meat and cheese products would be significantly reduced, but whoever refuses to eat them at all would benefit financially from those less inclined to do so.

I hate to think about how heavy handed we would have to be in order to impose such restrictions on our lifestyle en mass. The world might resemble some strange dystopia with genetically engineered humans being grazed and milked for cheese products, and "Soylent Green" remakes would be a hit at the box office. Nevertheless, limiting our choices may very well be something that is optional now, but it is likely to be less optional in the future.

Artificial general intelligence (AGI) is going to take over soon and we won't have to worry about this at all anymore. It won't be our responsibility. The magnitude of the restrictions that will be forced upon us is inversely proportionate to the integrity of the choices we are currently free to make.

Now consider a practical approach with a real life example. There are several dozen conventional fast food and grocery outlets near my city garden. The majority of people living within a mile are nearer to me than they are to any of those outlets. If they get hungry, as many people do, they can harvest a fresh meal from my yard. However, to get free, local, sustainable, positive impact nutrition from me, they must pick only that which needs to be picked in a manner that improves my yard. They must treat my plants as I treat them, with individual attention and concern about how every square inch of sunlight and soil is utilized for maximum contribution to the whole. If they were to do so, I would have enough free time to install a similar system in their own back yard, and I would gladly do so.

I graze as I'm watering. I pick leaves for myself and the hens that are damaged by insects. This makes it easy for me to use the insects as well because I feed them to the hens, but I couldn't be sustainable without animals being carefully integrated. Even if the only animal is me, that animal has to be integrated. Larger animals for larger plots is entirely workable, and it's important to realize that they can be “good” for they environment and not necessarily “bad” as is assumed by your question. In such an environment, meat and dairy would be an evil waste product if it were not consumed, but a cow would still be contributing much more than a human could, as long as the environment is appropriate to the beast and not the other way around.

  • Doesn't answer the question, which was about GHG emissions from current production methods of beef and cheese – andyyy Nov 19 '19 at 8:24
  • @andyyy That was addressed completely and thoroughly within the text of the question itself. The only answer this question required was a response to the part of the question: "Can anyone critique my reasoning?" which I certainly was able to do regarding the part of the question that assumed beef and cheese production is inherently bad. It's not. It's only bad for the environment when it's produced irresponsibly in unsustainable ways and in quantities greater than the local ecology can support. That's something few people consider. – Scott Tramposch Nov 19 '19 at 21:01

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